I'm interested to know why we use had better for recommendation. Technically we're speaking of an action that hasn't yet occurred. Like he had better leave a tip means he hasn't yet left a tip, but I suggest he do.

Why do we use the past tense had if it has nothing to do with the past? Why do we not use the subjunctive here? (He have better leave a tip.)

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    Well, isn't that just English? ;) In the same way, would (past of will) expresses the conditional or indicates desire, and should (past of shall) is used for obligation/recommendation. Neither have nothing to do with the past. Same goes for could. In fact, the past tenses of auxiliary/modal verbs are used idiomatically in ways that have nothing to do with the past...
    – Jimi Oke
    Commented Jan 26, 2011 at 23:44
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    @Jimi that's right. However, seeing that "had better" is more of an expression than a modal verb, it always sounded a bit off to me. Referring specifically to modal verbs, in French and Hebrew for example, "I would want" translates to "Je voudrais" (past of "voudrai" - will want) and "הייתי רוצה" (lit. "(I) was (I) want") respectively (both past forms), but "you had better know it!" translates to "il faut que tu le saches!" (subjunctive). Somehow English uses the past tense instead of the subjunctive which seems less logical to me.
    – sombe
    Commented Jan 27, 2011 at 0:04
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    Right, it's an expression, so maybe there's no handy explanation for its existence. Maybe an etymologist/linguist can enlighten us. Even you have better sounds worse. We'd better just take had better as a synonym of ought to/should and not try to parse it! I should point out, though, that the had is sometimes left out. For examples: "You better take it", "He better do it", etc... And now, checking my dictionary, it says the had in had better functions as an auxiliary verb...
    – Jimi Oke
    Commented Jan 27, 2011 at 0:21
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    I'd wager, though, that had is the subjunctive of to have. Let me verify this...
    – Jimi Oke
    Commented Jan 27, 2011 at 0:23
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    Yes, you could think of had in the subjunctive past mood. Consider: If I had money or If I were to go...
    – Jimi Oke
    Commented Jan 27, 2011 at 0:26

3 Answers 3


The NOAD reports that the meaning of had better do something is

  • would find it wiser to do something (you had better be careful)
  • ought to do something

It reports also this note about the usage:

In the verb phrase had better do something, the word had acts like an auxiliary verb; in informal spoken contexts, it is often dropped, as in you better not come tonight. In writing, the had may be contracted to ’d (you’d better call), but it should not be dropped altogether (not you better call).


"You had better..." seems to be an expression (idiom) that functions as a strong suggestion to solve a problem. It seems to be even stronger than "You should..." Examples:

  • You had better see the doctor about your cough.
  • You had better study hard for your entrance exam.

To explain the grammar, I'd say it is such a strong suggestion phrase that it suggests something that the person should have already completed in the past but is just starting to do. Clearer grammar might be "You better have finished the report!" instead of "You had better finish the report!"

  • The question is a good one to demostrate what an idiomatic expresssion is (a concept that sometimes seems to run far afield on this site and elsewere). "Had better"...[something] is an idiom (essentally, short-hand, mostly oral or written-dialog means of expressing (in this case) a necessary propostion (in imperative mood); one of those ways of speaking that must be inculcated by rote; and which has no formal grammatical context or precedent...hence, is idomatic (remember that definition)...hence also, nothing more need be said...other than... [next comment]
    – lex
    Commented Oct 21, 2012 at 4:36
  • ...other than that original questioner, or someone trusted, (watch this)...had best...go back and remove the initial tags and, then, supersede them with the tag, idiom.
    – lex
    Commented Oct 21, 2012 at 4:38
  • PS I only found this Q & A because I was searching for something related, and yet unrelated (perhaps an idiom, perhaps not, I will let you know....)
    – lex
    Commented Oct 21, 2012 at 4:42

Look at this sentence

He had better leave a tip.

It's actually used to say someone should do something. But it makes sense to tell that the real form of the sentence was:

If he had left a tip, it would be better.

It means he has not done the work, but still he has the opportunity to do it.

  • 4
    But your second sentence refers specifically to the past, and I also believe is logically incorrect ("If he had left a tip, it would have been better").
    – sombe
    Commented Jan 26, 2011 at 23:55
  • 6
    I don't at all agree with this logic.
    – Jimi Oke
    Commented Jan 27, 2011 at 0:16

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